Trump-Style Leadership?

I teach the core course in leadership for the working professional MBA program in Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University. Last year, as I was working through a well-practiced and usually non-controversial lecture on the downsides of leader bullying, an MBA student interrupted me to point out that many of the leadership behaviors that I characterized as “dysfunctional” (e.g., belittling direct reports, withholding the truth from employees and other stakeholders, and exacting revenge against individuals who disagree with and criticize the leader’s decision-making and behavior) were part of Donald Trump’s “M.O.” This student argued that, whether I like him personally or not, I had to admit that Mr. Trump’s approach to leadership made him rich, famous, and oh yeah, president of the United States. “So why, Professor Tepper, are you dissing a leadership style that has worked for the president?” This student went so far as to ask why I am not encouraging students to emulate Mr. Trump.

Some of you may be wondering the same thing.

Before I get to my answer, let me offer some disclaimers. When I’m teaching business leadership, I make every effort to avoid being lured into debates about the governing philosophies and accomplishments of political leaders. This isn’t easy. When I’ve permitted it, in-class discussions about the political landscape and its players generate a good bit of conversation that, more often than not, morphs quickly into heated argument that has no tidy resolution. I find that when both right-leaning and left-leaning students bring up examples from politics, they often want to hear that I am prepared to give my stamp of scholarly approval to the leaders they idolize. And I’ve learned from bitter experience that when I don’t offer that approval, students reject the validity of my stamp altogether.

So, while reminding my students that when talking about business leadership in class I do not take sides in political debates, I offered this response: Donald Trump’s approval seems to hover between the high 30s and low 40s, depending on the source of the poll. Even Mr. Trump’s most ardent champions acknowledge that his broad popularity does not rise to 50 percent. With that in mind, there is a question that you have to ask yourself before deciding that Mr. Trump’s style is worthy of emulation: would this approach to leadership work for you? Could you get by with a 40 percent approval rating from your direct reports, peers and/or superiors? Think about the criteria we use to evaluate the effectiveness of organizational leaders. We expect our leaders to ensure that we have the resources we need to perform our jobs well, to be interested in our career success and to be inspiring. How effective would you be if only 40 percent of your employees believed that you were hitting those marks? A better question might be: how long would you last with that level of approval? There is no doubt that 40 percent or so of the country believes that Mr. Trump’s approach works for the leadership position he currently occupies. To return to the question I raised a moment ago: would his leadership style work for you? I’ll wager that, for most of us, the answer is “no.”

And there is a more fundamental takeaway from this exchange (with my student) that I’d like to underscore. When drawing inferences about what makes for effective leadership, we need to be cautious. Leadership success stories abound and it is all too easy for us to overreach when we draw conclusions about what might work for us when we find ourselves in leadership roles. What worked for Jack Welch when he ran GM or Steve Jobs when he ran Apple may not work for everyone. The safer approach is to learn as much as we can about the leadership practices that have proven to be effective for the vast majority of leaders. That’s something that we’ll get to in future posts.

Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump

Reference: How popular is Donald Trump? (2018). [Graph illustrations of the President’s approval rating, August 6, 2018]. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved from

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.